Skip to content Skip to footer

The Sanctuary Movement Was Reignited Under Obama and It’s Growing Under Trump

Sanctuary is much more than just buildings, it’s support from community, say refuge-seekers who’ve been helped.

An activist displays a sign at day five of the #NoBanNoWall protest in Chicago, Illinois, on February 1, 2017. (Photo: Sarah Ji; Edited: LW / TO)

After a round of ICE crackdowns at the end of 2015, then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted, “Does everyone see that the Democrats and President Obama are now, because of me, starting to deport people who are here illegally. Politics!”

In actuality, these actions didn’t represent a new policy. Conservatives may have viewed Obama as a champion of undocumented people, but during his time in office he deported 3 million people, more than any president in United States history. The Obama administration spent $154 million on federal immigration enforcement, over $50 million more than the Bush administration did during its eight years. In 2014, in the wake of Obama’s 2 millionth deportation, Janet Murguía, head of the National Council of La Raza declared, “For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief. It’s a staggering number that far outstrips any of his predecessors and leaves behind it a wake of devastation for families across America.”

The Sanctuary Movement, which developed during the 1980s when hundreds of congregations took in Central American migrants fleeing from the horrific impact of US foreign policy, was reborn under Obama. Technically, spaces like churches, synagogues and mosques could be legally raided under federal law, but there’s been an unofficial hands-off policy regarding religious locations for years. In fact, a 2011 Department of Homeland Security policy ordered ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to stay away from spots like churches and schools. In 2014 Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, a Mexican immigrant who was on the verge of being deported, took sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, the very church that originally kindled the movement over 30 years before under former Pastor John Fife. After a month-long stay at the church, Neyoy Ruiz was granted a one-year stay of his deportation order. The following year, he took sanctuary at the First Christian Church in Tucson for a week, until ICE granted him an additional one-year stay.

Today, the movement remains crucial for undocumented immigrants like Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who claimed sanctuary at Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver shortly after the election. “I came to the United States following the American Dream,” Latorre told Truthout, “This country always sounded beautiful to me because my aunt, who is a US citizen, had always told me stories about the US. That here, a better life is possible…. I came here because I missed my aunt who is like a mother to me because I lived many years in Peru with her and my cousins.”

Latorre pointed to the fact that “sanctuary” does not simply refer to the buildings that offer relative safety — it’s about community.

“Sanctuary means so much to me because they support me,” Latorre continued. “[They provide a home] without fear and I’m not alone. It’s like … I feel strong here. There is peace, tranquility and harmony as well as so much love from the people that support me.”

While the Sanctuary Movement didn’t start under Trump, many of its leaders believe that it faces an unprecedented challenge in the coming years. Jim Rigby, a pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas told Truthout, “The Trump administration has sent an additional ripple of fear through the immigrant community because of its scapegoating of immigrants, its promises to target that population for even more deportation, and its clear lack of principle that brings more uncertainty into the lives of this vulnerable population.”

One of those uncertainties is whether or not the hands-off policy will continue to be recognized. An ICE sweep recently occurred at Rising Hope United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, as reported by The Intercept’s Alex Emmons. After a group of Latino men left the parking lot and stepped foot on the opposite sidewalk, “a dozen federal agents burst out of the cars, forced them up against a wall, handcuffed them, and interrogated them for at least half an hour.”

“They were not here because they were doing a routine community sweep. They were clearly targeting,” Rev. Keary Kincannon, a pastor at Rising Hope, told Emmons. “They were waiting until the [Latino] men came out of the church. And they rounded them all up. They didn’t question the blacks. They didn’t question the whites. They were clearly going after folks that were Latino.”

Incidents like these are the reason why it’s imperative to expand the work of sanctuary under Trump, Reverend Alison Harrington, pastor at the aforementioned Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, told Truthout. Harrington pointed out that the network of sanctuary churches has doubled its numbers since Trump was elected and the question now is, not only how to expand the number of churches involved, but also extend the concept of sanctuary beyond the confines of a particular place. “Sanctuary shouldn’t only exist within the walls of a church,” she said.

This point was echoed by Todd Miller, a journalist based in Arizona who has covered US-Mexican border issues for over a decade. “In one way, sanctuary means simply offering hospitality to fellow human beings, especially those in need,” Miller told Truthout., “Such actions are necessary especially with the historic border militarization that has happened in the US Southwest, and its projected further build-up as promised by the Trump administration. What we have here is a lethal apparatus of exclusion that is designed to let people die of thirst and hunger in the vast desert lands. This humanitarian crisis makes it imperative for people to step in with solidarity, support and sanctuary of many possible variations.”

This sentiment has already led to an expansion of sanctuary under Trump, as citizens have begun to realize that underground networks will be an important component of solidarity during this repressive period.

“I definitely won’t let [ICE] in. That’s our legal right,” a Los Angeles man who cleared out a bedroom for potential refugees told CNN. “If they have a warrant, then they can come in. I can imagine that could be scary, but I feel the consequences of being passive in this moment is a little scary.”

Shortly after the election, George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel University, published a piece succinctly breaking down why resistance to Trump’s immigration plans must contain a direct action approach that goes beyond the law. “The tactics we choose for this struggle will not all be legal, but they are legitimate tools in a legitimate struggle,” he wrote. “And if migrants among others are condemned to exist in a gray area outside the protection of the law, then for the next four years if not many more, those struggling against white supremacist backlash will need to similarly push the strategic envelope and occupy the gray area that we enter as soon as we refuse to accept Trump’s legitimacy.”

Sanctuary practices will need to be varied and wide-ranging in order to be effective under this administration. There is no doubt that faith communities will continue to play a vital role. They maintain deep symbolic significance in this country, and faith communities’ oppositional commitment to immigrants could deal a powerful blow to a man who was the overwhelming choice among evangelicals. A recent Reuters piece quoted J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, on the possibility that the “religious left” movement in the US could gain significant new power and momentum under Trump. “It’s one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn’t done a good job of organizing,” said Hornbeck. “It has taken a crisis, or perceived crisis, like Trump’s election to cause folks on the religious left to really own their religion in the public square.”

The faith leaders connected to sanctuary efforts, who have been owning their religion in the public square for years, are hopeful that more people of faith will join in. Pastor Jim Rigby has declared, “If you don’t open your door, you’re not really a church.” When Truthout asked him to explain what he meant by that line, he quoted Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “For the Lord your God … loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Reverend Alison Harrington cited Exodus and its message of solidarity against oppression: “God continues to stand with the oppressed,” Harrington said. “Executive orders in our faith are very clear.”

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $29,000 in the next 36 hours. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.